The Brotherhood's kung-fu militia

Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Khairat al-Shatir, author of this surprising article about a year ago, has been arrested. (Update: better story from Reuters.) This just a few days after the release of Essam al-Erian and Muhammad Mursi from their six-months (or more) stint in jail. All of this is taking place with as backdrop the top story in a lot of the Egyptian papers this week, a martial arts demonstration held at al-Azhar University last weekend.

According to newspaper reports, a group of 50 students wearing uniforms and black hoods held a martial arts show (karate and kung-fu, apparently) in front of the dean’s office. Security troops were present but did not intervene. The students claimed to represent a part of the “militia” of the new Free Students Union, a recently created parallel union not recognized by the university and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood at al-Azhar University (different universities have created different parallel student unions representing each campus' political map. Al-Azhar is traditionally conservative.) The anti-Islamist state press, such as Rose al-Youssef, is having a field day showing pictures of the event and comparing it with pictures of Hizbullah or Hamas militants.

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(The top three pics are of the martial art show, the ones in the middle are of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Geish al-Mahdi in Iraq. The bottom pics are of Deputy Guide Muhammad Habib and TV show host Amr Adib, who argued over the incident. The big headline on top says, "The Brothers' Army")

For many commentators the event was reminiscent of the MB’s paramilitary wing, which was active between the 1940s and the 1950s and is alleged (although this is much disputed) to have taken part in political assassinations. The MB disbanded the group, called alternatively the tanzim al-khass or tanzim al-sirri (Special Organization or Secret Organization) and by the 1970s it officially renounced violence. Other interpretations say that the more violent wing of the MB split and eventually went on to form Egypt’s two main Islamist terrorist groups, the Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad. The former was crushed by the authorities in the early 1990s, while the latter was driven out of the country and now forms a core of al-Qaeda, most notably represented by Ayman al-Zawahri. Amr al-Choubaki, a leading Egyptian analyst of the Brotherhood, called the development “extremely worrying” in a recent interview, arguing it may point to a radicalization of parts of the Brotherhood.
The MB’s Deputy Supreme Guide, Mohammed Habib, has denied that the organization has a secret paramilitary wing and said that an internal investigation had been opened into the events at al-Azhar University. He is hinting at an independent initiative of the al-Azhar student Brothers that did not receive approval from senior leaders, and has even suggested that the people who organized it will be punished. But the MB's leadership is now largely in damage control mode, with the regime getting its revenge for the Farouq Hosni/veil debacle in many ways. For the MB, which has spent much of the past year trying to reassure people about its ascendency, this incident is deeply embarrassing and only serves to confirm widespread, but hereto unjustified, claims that they continue to have a violent branch. It is almost tempting to think that agitators are behind this, judging by how uncharacteristic this seems, but that is probably not the case. After three months of demonstrations and clashes with university authorities -- especially at al-Azhar where the expulsion of Islamist students from university housing in September began mobilizing students even before October's student elections -- it is not surprising that exasperated students would engage in these kinds of displays, especially when the Hizbullah model is on everyone's mind at the moment. Not to mention of course the now year-long campaign against the MB, which has seen more than 800 members arrested this year.

Although I have not really investigated this in any serious way, it reinforces my impression that the MB, as a "big tent" movement, has members who would like to take a much more aggressive stance towards the regime and impose itself on campus. This divide is probably across generational lines, with younger members disappointed that the MB leadership is not doing more political mobilization. Watch this space.

Update 2: I forgot to mention that a common theme to Egyptian press commentary about the MB militia is a reference to Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef's offer last July to send 10,000 troops to Lebanon to fight alongside Hizbullah. A lot of anti-Islamist commentators, notably but not only in Rose al-Youssef, are saying that this "army" actually exists and has been trained for the last two years in Marsa Matrouh and Abou Kir. They gloomily write of an impending insurrection and call for the government to react swiftly ("as it reacted in the controversy over Farouq Hosni's comments on the veil," in the words of one writer.) They also insist that Egypt is at risk of having an armed opposition, as in Lebanon and Palestine, is this phenomenon is not fought more insistently.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.